Thursday, August 9, 2018

This Gun for Hire (1942)

April 23, 1942 (Denver, Colorado), May 13, 1942 (New York City), release dates
Directed by Frank Tuttle
Screenplay by Albert Maltz, W. R. Burnett
Based on the novel A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
Music by David Buttolph
Edited by Archie Marshek
Cinematography by John Seitz

Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham
Robert Preston as Detective Michael Crane
Laird Cregar as Willard Gates
Alan Ladd as Philip Raven
Tully Marshall as Alvin Brewster
Marc Lawrence as Tommy
Olin Howland as Blair Fletcher
Roger Imhof as Senator Burnett
Pamela Blake as Annie
Frank Ferguson as Albert Baker
Victor Kilian as Drew
Patricia Farr Ruby
Harry Shannon as Steve Finnerty
Charles C. Wilson as the police captain
Mikhail Rasumny as Slukey
Bernadene Hayes as Albert Baker’s secretary
Mary Davenport as the sales associate in the dress shop
Chester Clute as Mr. Stewart, the rooming house manager
Charles Arnt as the dressmaker
Earle Dewey (aka Earle S. Dewey) as Mr. Collins
Clem Bevans as the scissors grinder
Lynda Grey as Gates’s secretary
Virita Campbell as the girl in the stairwell

Distributed by Paramount Pictures (1942 to 1958), Universal Pictures (1958 to the present)
Produced by Paramount Pictures

This Gun for Hire is one of the reasons I love films noir. It’s another example of a short B film that packs a lot of information in its short running time, and viewers have to pay attention to make sure they take in all the plot details. I had to see the film twice to understand the political intrigue, the international espionage, the relationships among all the characters. I suspect being a viewer in 1942 would have helped you! You would have caught all the cultural references the first time, and you would have been more informed about international events and the U.S. entry into World War II.

This Gun for Hire is also the film that made Alan Ladd a star, even though he was billed last: “introducing Alan Ladd.” It’s also the first of three films noir that starred Ladd and Veronica Lake:
This Gun for Hire (May 13, 1942)
The Glass Key (October 14, 1942)
The Blue Dahlia (April 19, 1946)

I can see why Ladd’s performance as Philip Raven in This Gun for Hire made him a star. He’s completely believable as a hit man who makes unpredictable choices that range between compassion and violence. He has most of the screen time, and he makes the longest speech in the film. It’s part of a conversation with his costar, Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham, in which he describes his background, explains why he is the way he is, and elicits her sympathy—and sympathy from viewers, too.

After the opening credits, the narrative starts with Philip Raven waking up to an alarm clock. A ragtime piano is playing on the soundtrack, which I think was intended to emphasize the ramshackle accommodations in a honky tonk neighborhood. Raven has been hired by a man who calls himself Johnson to kill someone named Albert Baker. But Johnson is really Willard Gates of the Nitro Chemical Corporation of Los Angeles, and thus the intrigue and double-crossing build from the beginning.

The first scene in the boarding house reveals that Raven is attentive to his cat, but he slaps the chambermaid when she swats at the cat to get it to leave. He then takes off to make the hit on Albert Baker. On the staircase in Baker’s apartment building, Raven meets a young girl in leg braces. He sees her on the way down, too, after killing Albert Baker and his secretary. The secretary wasn’t supposed to be there, but Raven cannot leave her alive as a witness. He considers shooting the young girl on the staircase because she, too, is a witness at least to his whereabouts, but he relents. Viewers learn right away that Raven is capable of evil. He has a soft spot, but it is impossible to predict when his soft spot will keep Raven from doing more evil.

(This blog post about This Gun for Hire contains spoilers.)

Willard Gates goes to the police, where he pays a visit to Detective Lieutenant Crane. Detective Crane, it turns out, is Ellen Graham’s boyfriend, which comes to light later in the film. Gates doesn’t know that; he is visiting Detective Crane because he intends to frame Raven. Gates paid Raven for the hit on Albert Baker with money he stole from the Nitro Chemical Corporation. During the theft, Gates injured the company paymaster, and he plans to double-cross Raven by pinning the theft on him. By the time the police catch up with Raven, they should then have a murder and the theft to pin on Raven.

Gates owns and runs the Neptune Club in addition to his day job at Nitro Chemical. Ellen Graham auditions for a part in an act at the club and gets the job. She is part of a sting working with Fletcher (who is posing as her agent) and Senator Burnett. Ellen is also involved in a double-cross of sorts, but she is on the side of patriotism: Senator Burnett wants her to find out what she can about Gates and the theft of industry trade secrets. Senator Burnett suspects that Gates is trading the secrets with foreign agents.

Ellen Graham and Philip Raven cross paths by coincidence (an example of fate at work in film noir), and she has an uphill battle trying to help him and getting him to help her with her citizen’s undercover investigation. Here’s a short example of a conversation between them that shows what she is up against:
Raven: “Hey, this is good luck. Cats bring good luck. Cats bring you luck. And it’s hungry. [addressing the cat] Ain’t got nuthin’ for you, Tuffy.”
Graham: “You like cats, don’t you?”
Raven: “Yeah. They’re on their own. They don’t need anybody.”
Graham: “Well, this one could do with a friend. So could you.”
Raven: “You’re tryin’ to make me go soft. Well, you save your oil. I don’t go soft for anybody.”
Raven doesn’t go soft during this part of the conversation. In fact, he suffocates the cat to stop it from meowing and giving him and Graham away to the police while they are in hiding. But Graham does convince him—eventually—to do his patriotic duty and get the information that she needs about Gates and his boss, Alvin Brewster. Lieutenant Crane gets the girl (Graham); Graham finds out that Brewster and Gates were selling the chemical formula to the Japanese; Raven dies, but he dies satisfied that he helped Graham find out what she needed to learn for Senator Burnett.

Alan Ladd’s performance as Philip Raven in This Gun for Hire made him a star and I think deservedly so. He can be ruthless, cunning, violent, yet he has unexpected loyalties and can be swayed to do the right thing, as Ellen Graham convinces him to do. Ladd’s performance in moving from these seemingly incompatible positions is believable, and viewers can sympathize with him after he meets Graham. That’s quite an accomplishment for a character—and for the actor playing the part—who gives serious thought at the start of the film to killing a girl in leg braces because she is a potential witness to his crimes.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

September 4, 2017 (Venice International Film Festival), November 10, 2017 (United States), January 12, 2018 (United Kingdom), release dates
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Screenplay by Martin McDonagh
Music by Carter Burwell
Edited by Jon Gregory
Cinematography by Ben Davis

Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes
Woody Harrelson as William “Bill” Willoughby
Sam Rockwell as Jason Dixon
John Hawkes as Charlie Hayes
Peter Dinklage as James
Abbie Cornish as Anne Willoughby
Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby
Kerry Condon as Pamela
Darrell Britt-Gibson as Jerome
Lucas Hedges as Robbie Hayes
Želiko Ivanek as the desk sergeant
Amanda Warren as Denise
Kathryn Newton as Angela Hayes
Samara Weaving as Penelope
Clarke Peters as Chief Abercrombie

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Produced by Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Film4 Productions, Cutting Edge Group

Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman grieving the rape and murder of her daughter seven months prior to the start of the film. Mildred Hayes commissions three dilapidated billboards on a rarely traveled road outside the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, to send a message to the Ebbing Police Department and specifically to the police chief, Willoughby. The billboards, in order, read:
Raped while dying
And still no arrests?
How come, Chief Willoughby?

The message sets off a firestorm (literally, in two separate cases) of protests and condemnation. Not from Chief Willoughby: He’s surprisingly sympathetic. Some of the police officers under his command, including Officer Jason Dixon, take exception to the billboards. Office Dixon in particular objects to the television news interview that Mildred gives after journalists take note of the new billboards. In the interview, she states that some officers are more interested in harassing African Americans instead of investigating what she calls real crimes. It’s a veiled barb at Officer Dixon, and his reaction proves Mildred’s point.

Mildred’s grief and desperation, and Frances McDormand’s performance, are all the reasons needed to call Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a neo-noir. Mildred drives the narrative because the story is all about her. But the film is not a typical neo-noir, and Mildred is not a traditional femme fatale. She does not use her sexuality to get what she wants, but she will use violence—and that’s thoroughly noir.

“The Last Rose of Summer” is a song used throughout the film and works beautifully to emphasize the sorrowful mood and Mildred Hayes’s grief. Click here for more information about the poem that inspired the song, and click here for more information about the song itself.

Frances McDormand has the most moving scene in the film. The moment comes when Mildred’s son Robbie tries to stop her from saving one of the billboards that has been set on fire. It is already nearly destroyed, and there is little that she and Robbie can do. Robbie refuses to give Mildred a fire extinguisher that still works, and Mildred screams Robbie’s name. All her grief and rage are evident in her voice and on her face.

McDormand is also in the scene that I think is the most frightening in the film: when a customer comes into the shop where she works and threatens her with physical harm. The customer seethes with rage against women. He uses everything that is publicly known about the murder of Angela Hayes, Mildred’s daughter, and threatens the same to Mildred. If another character hadn’t entered the store at the right time, he likely would have made good on his threats. It’s a chilling scene: It contains very little physical violence compared to other violent scenes in the film, but viewers don’t know that on first viewing. The fear of what could happen and the images created by the threats in the mind’s eye are truly unsettling.

McDormand’s performance is exceptional—and not only because of the scenes I just described. Mildred Hayes is a very complicated character. She is capable of great compassion and of extreme violence. She is a victim many times over: of domestic abuse, of the murder of her daughter, of threats from both neighbors and complete strangers. It’s hard not to root for her, in spite of her own acts of violence.

The film does offer the opportunity for redemption, and it comes in surprising ways and for characters you might least expect. Violence, grief, despair seem to generate more and more violence, but then matters take a turn, and some say that enough is enough. I hesitate to say more because newcomers to the story should savor the film, the story, as I was able to do. I want to see the film again because I’m sure I missed some details, not because the plot is lacking but because it’s so easy to become absorbed the first time around by the power of it all.

I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would. The premise is all noir: a woman grieving the loss of her daughter before the film starts. She is awash in grief and despair, and she wants justice for her daughter. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may not have other elements typical of a noir: no femme fatale, not a lot of shadowy cinematography, no off-kilter shots or extreme close-ups. But it does have a mother’s grief. And it does have a lot of violence for a small town like Ebbing, Missouri.